Notice: Undefined index: reset in /var/www/html/wp-content/mu-plugins/cets_blog_defaults.php on line 733

Deprecated: The called constructor method for WP_Widget in SMCWidget is deprecated since version 4.3.0! Use __construct() instead. in /var/www/html/wp-includes/functions.php on line 5306

Deprecated: define() was called with an argument that is deprecated since version 3.0.0! The constant VHOST is deprecated. Use the boolean constant SUBDOMAIN_INSTALL in wp-config.php to enable a subdomain configuration. Use is_subdomain_install() to check whether a subdomain configuration is enabled. in /var/www/html/wp-includes/functions.php on line 5497
Women - Exeter Centre for Medieval Studies

Home » Posts tagged 'Women'

Tag Archives: Women


The other women of the coronation in medieval England

In medieval England Queen Consorts were not the only women whose status and style of life were changed forever at the coronation of a king. Crowning conferred on the monarch many prerogative rights; Richard II (1377-1399) – after defeating the challenge of the Lords Appellant in 1387 – saw them codified in law. The focus of attention for King Richard, and for most of his successors, concerned the right to act at will, independent of the counsel of his peers and parliament, commanding the fiscal and financial resources of the kingdom.

Richard II (1377-1399)

But there were also less momentous prerogative rights deep-rooted in the historical tradition of the crown which were far less contentious but just as frequently claimed. In taking up their throne, the monarch could enact the jurisdiction invested perpetually in the crown over institutions of original royal foundation. For the kingdom’s ancient abbeys, the new monarch asserted their inherited authority by presenting a candidate of their choosing for solemn profession in the community.

For more than two centuries, from the reign of Edward II (1307-27) to the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509), the monarch chose coronation candidates for entry to the centuries-old abbeys of women associated with a royal founder such as Amesbury, Barking, Godstow, Romsey, Shaftesbury and Wilton. In principle, the same prerogative right pertained to the bishops of England and Wales when they came into office and were consecrated but they did not take it up routinely.

A digital reconstruction of Shaftesbury Abbey

The monarchs’ nominations were made throughout the year of their coronation; sometimes they were made also in the wake of the coronation of the Queen Consort. They are most commonly recorded in the rolls of Letters Patent although some were issued rather as writs and the written records of them are more patchily preserved.

When Richard III nominated Elizabeth Bryther to Shaftesbury Abbey in 1483 she was named as ‘King’s mynchyn [i.e. religious woman or nun]’. Perhaps they were always spoken of in this way.

Not every monarch between 1307 and 1509 selected women to be sent into the cloister as stepped up to their but the names and destinations of candidates are known for Edward II, Richard II, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III and Henry VII.

The coming of the Tudor dynasty marked a new departure in the ceremonial of coronation, as a new device, or order of service was drafted. Yet Henry VII, whose personal religion had strong monastic flavour, held on to the old tradition of nun nominations. Even in the last months of his life, when he contemplated a second marriage to Margaret of Austria, duchess of Savoy, he nominated Amicia Preston to Wilton in anticipation of a coronation that never occurred.

The abbeys they chose were all within the Benedictine tradition, although Amesbury followed the reformed customs of Fontevraud. All were of royal foundation, had attracted ongoing royal patronage and seen entrants of noble, even royal blood. The coronation candidates were sent into communities whose culture and society were well-suited to monarchy.

A Benedictine nun, depicted in an English manuscript of c.1380 (BL, MS Cotton Nero D VII)

Always, it would appear, the women were members of families tied to the incoming monarch’s household either by birth or service. Margaret Swynford, nominated for Barking Abbey by Richard II in 1377, was daughter of Lady Katherine Swynford whose husband, Sir Hugh was knight of the royal household. In fact, her father may have been Lady Katherine’s lover, the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt. Margaret was nominated alongside her cousin, Eleanor Chaucer, daughter of Geoffrey, the poet and at this stage of his career, a yeoman member of the royal household. Margaret Camoys, nominated for Wilton Abbey at the same time was daughter of Sir Hugh de Camoys, a household knight. Elizabeth Russell, nominated for Godstow Abbey, stood several paces further out from the Ricardian court circle: her father, Robert was in the service of Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, and probably he was brother of Sir John Russell, knighted as Richard came to the throne, and already among the courtiers in favour.

The standing remains of Godstow Abbey

Goda Hampton, nominated for Barking Abbey by Henry VI in 1430 was daughter of John, who was only beginning his career in the service of the crown as an esquire of the royal household. The different standing of the family, and father in each instance suggests there was wide awareness of this source of court patronage, and only a narrow chance of success.

As suggested by these different degrees of proximity to the monarch, these nominations of nuns were made as a means of exercising patronage, purchasing, or rewarding service. The need to build a network of loyal servants of the crown was especially pronounced at moment of minority succession such as that of Richard II, when the crown was conferred on a child. It is hardly surprising that the largest number of nominations to nunneries recorded are from the coronations of the nine year-old Richard II (1377) and the eight year-old Henry VI (1429-30).

The destinations of the women were not arbitrary decisions. Margaret Camoys was presented to monastery where her aunt, Isabel, presided as abbess (1352-96). Elizabeth Russell went to Godstow, within range of the Russell’s home territory in Warwickshire. Little is known of the subsequent lives of these women, although there is some indication that they remained in the religious life notwithstanding the fact that its beginning was out of their hands. Margaret Swynford and Eleanor Chaucer ended their lives at Barking. Perhaps the succession of other women did too, binding the observant life of Benedictine women to crown, court and coronation almost to the brink of Reformation.

James Clark

Mothers and daughters: a snapshot from early Tudor England

The relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter is often represented as inherently volatile. It has a long history as a trope in drama and fiction and in spite of a heightened awareness of, and suspicion towards facile stereotype it still surfaces today.

For the historian of more-or-less any time period and place before the past century, of course it is very difficult to cut through these representations to discover the lived experience of women, of their personal ties, to family members or to anyone else on their horizons.

A fifteenth-century mother and her daughters and sons: an unidentified fragment from St Bartholomew’s church, Orford (Suffolk)

Beyond the exemplary stories of preachers and guides to social behaviour and values also generated by the clerical establishment, medievalists often confront a complete void. Direct accounts of women acting in their family context are scarce. Rarer still is any record of their personal relationships expressed in their own words.

A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband, 1453 BL, MS 33597, fo. 2r

In an English context, really the only resource is the handful of letters found in the collections of a select group of elite families dating from the century before the Tudor Reformation. The correspondence of the family groups of Pastons, Plumptons and Lisles preserves brief but valuable glimpses of women acting and reacting as parents (and grandparents), children, siblings and spouses.

Here there are scarcely any sole exchanges between women – mother, grandmother, daughter, daughter-in-law – and most – as might be expected given what is known of changing patterns of language use, literacy and household administration – come at the end of the period.

Powderham Castle

A letter discovered in the Courtenay archive at Powderham Castle now casts some fresh light on this still elusive aspect of womens’ lives.

The letter, written in a clerical hand on a small, folded sheet of paper, has the appearance of an original not a fair-copy. It was sent by Margaret Courtenay to her ‘moste entirely biloved lady and moder’, Katharine, dowager countess of Devon. It carries a date of 5 January but gives no year. It can probably be placed between 1512 and 1514, since Margaret refers to the death of her grandfather, Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, which occurred in 1512, and she signs herself with the family name she retained until her marriage in 1514.

Margaret Courtenay’s letter to her mother, Katherine, now in the Powderham Castle archive

When she composed the letter, Margaret was about the age of fourteen or fifteen. Her year of birth is not recorded but she was the youngest of her mother’s three children, her two elder brothers having been born in about 1496 and 1497 respectively.

At the time of writing already Margaret had left her mother’s household. Her letter is placed ‘at Greenwich’, surely an indication that she was at court, among the throng of acknowledged favourites and hopefuls attendant on the young (twenty-three year old) Henry VIII) at the riverside palace that was the mainstay of the royal household.

Greenwich Palace, seen from the River Thames in a panorama by Anthony van den Wyngaerde, c. 1560, now in the Ashmolean Museum

Like (m)any teenagers, in her short letter to her mother Margaret passes through a spectrum of rhetorical – and, it might be said, emotional – positions, rebuke, request, plea for sympathy and at the last a play on parental pride and reputation.

Firstly, she complains that the terms of her grandfather’s will have not been honoured, a fault for which she holds her mother directly responsible. ‘Be so good lady and moder unto me that I may have my money of my lord my grandfaders bequest which is L [i.e. 50] marks by yere whereof sithens [i.e. since] his decesse I had never but £20’.

Then, she begs her to pay her the money which is her due. ‘Ye and your counsel wol calle upon thexcecutors to see that I may content of the hole’.

Next, she gives a glimpse of a most pathetic plight, trading clothes and jewels with fine ladies of the court who pity her. ‘I have made a bargain…for certen stuffe and jewels which lately were Lady Lisles whiche will drawe nigh C marks…I doubte not if your grace saw the penyworthes therof ye wold help me therunto’.

The closing lines of Margaret Courtenay’s letter to her mother Powderham Castle archives

Finally, she needles her with the threat of public embarassment: ‘ther be diverse aboute the quene [i.e. Katharine of Aragon] that love your grace right wel councelled me to write unto you herin’.

Margaret’s desperation was surely shaped by the formidable figure of her mother, Katherine. She was the dowager countess, who at the time of her daughter’s letter still held the lion’s share of her husband’s remaining property as her eldest son had not yet come of age. Also, she was of royal blood, albeit that of the displaced Yorkist dynasty. Daughter of Edward IV, she identified herself as the daughter, sister and aunt of kings.

Katherine Courtenay, pictured among her royal family in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral

Katherine’s own early life had been far from secure: the security of her royal lineage became a liability when Henry Tudor took the throne in August 1485. Ten years later, at the age of sixteen King Henry had married her to a hero of the Bosworth battlefield, William Courtenay, son of Earl Edward. But in 1502 Courtenay was implicated in the conspiracy to challenge the Tudor succession with the last Yorkist claimant Edmund de la Pole. William was imprisoned in the Tower of London and his lands placed under attainder (the suspension of any claim on property which was taken into the custody of the crown). When Katherine’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of York, died in 1503, her remaining security in the Tudor regime was lost, and she was no longer accepted at court. William was not released until Henry VIII’s accession in April 1509 and even then, his position and prospect of the restoration of his property remained uncertain. He lived only another two years, and months later his father also died.

The deaths of her husband and father-in-law opened a narrow window of opportunity for Katherine, providing her with substantial property and income until the succession of her son. The old Earl Edward had been generous in his will to his grandchildren, but so early in the reign of Henry VIII, there can be little doubt Katherine’s first instinct was to hold his inheritance jealously to herself. There is no other record of Margaret’s early life but this letter suggests her mother had dispatched her to find her fortune at court.

How the good wife taught her daughter: Trinity College, Cambridge MS R. 3. 19, fos. 212v-213r

As advised in the fifteenth-century poem, How the good wife taught her daughter, Katherine knew well that ‘meydens thei be lonely / and no thingew syker therby’ and needs must ‘be…agode stowerde [that] wantys seldom any ryches’. But her daughter was yet to learn another lesson of the same poem, ‘Make thee not ryche of other mens thing / the bolder to spend be on ferthyng / Borowyd thing must nedys go home / if that thou wyll to heven gone’.

Henry Courtenay, elder brother of Margaret, shown as marquess of Exeter, in the Black Book of the Garter kept at St George’s Chapel, Windsor

The circumstances of mother and daughter changed dramatically soon after Margaret’s letter was sent. In December 1512, Katherine’s son, Margaret’s brother, Henry, received the king’s letters patent to take the title and inheritance of his grandfather as earl of Devon. Katherine’s custody of the Courtenay claim was at an end. In 1514 Margaret’s time at court brought her mother’s hope-for result and she was married to Henry Somerset, the eighteen-year old heir to the earldom of Worcester. The marriage lasted about twelve years. The date of Margaret’s death is not recorded but probably it was before her husband inherited his title in 1526. She did not survive to live in the style of a countess like her mother, Katherine.


James Clark, with thanks to Katie Edwards, Collections Manager, Powderham Castle

In conversation with… Alice Taylor, Part I: Scottish Identity, Intermarriage, and “Revolts”

Dr Alice Taylor on-call and mid-flow!

Last month, students on the Special Subject module ‘The Celtic Frontier: Post-Conquest England and her Celtic Neighbours’ were given the opportunity to interview Dr Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland and author of The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124-1290 (Oxford, 2016). The students’ questions focused on the long twelfth century and ranged from Scottish identity and culture to elite politics. After 50 minutes (!!) of grilling, we finally let Alice go…

This blog post and the next provide the highlights of our discussion. They are must-reads for students working on Scotland in the twelfth century – we are very grateful to Alice for both her time and her full responses!

The session was chaired by Dr Stuart Pracy with students on the module posing the questions. We begin with a question from Damien Welham.


DW: I’ve got a question on Scottish identity… It’s quite broad, but how did the coming of Anglo-Normans shift what it meant to be Scottish? And what would you say were the main problems that they caused?

Alice Taylor: Goodness, Damien, that’s a big question! So the question ‘how does elite settlement into Scotland over the twelfth century change political culture’ is, basically, the question that has preoccupied historians of medieval Scotland for about 200 years – and there have been many different ideas about it.

There are people who would call it the ‘Normanization’ of Scotland, that what happens to Scotland is the same as what happens to England following the Norman Conquest. So you have the imposition of fiefs, you’ve got the rise of French as the dominant language of the elites, you’ve got castle-building… It’s what happens to England in miniature. And if you were reading a book in the 1950s then this would be what you would read.

Now, there have been a number of people who have been working since the 1950s who are like, ‘hold on a second!’ Because what’s happened over the last 70 years is, essentially, a kind of cultural limitation of the effects of Anglo-Norman settlement. A lot has been done in terms of reframing. What’s the biggest shift in the geopolitics of north Britain? Rather than Anglo-Norman settlement, it’s the shift of the kingdom of Alba from north of the Forth to south of the Forth.

The Firth of Forth is a really, really big divide, even in Scotland now. And until the Forth Bridge was built, it was really difficult to get over. So in the thirteenth century and, indeed, before, people would call Scotland north of the Forth an island. If you look at the maps of Matthew Paris from the thirteenth century, he presents Scotland north of the Forth as being only connected to the rest of Britain by a bridge. And this area north of the Forth was called ‘Scotland’ – so the Kingdom of the Scots was much bigger than the area of ‘Scotland’.

Northern Britain as depicted by Matthew Paris ©BL

So, in a way, the big transition is the eleventh-century shift in the centre of power of the Scottish kingdom and Scottish kings to being within the area now called Lothian. That’s the area that contains Edinburgh, Roxburgh and (then) Berwick – kind of urban settlements. The incorporation of Lothian as the centre of Scottish kingship is a more profound shift for the geopolitics of Scotland because, if you think about it, if your centre is in the north, then who are you most interested in? Essentially, Norway and Denmark – not the kingdom of England! Whereas what happens in the late eleventh century is you’ve got a new dynasty, which is situating itself as being the rightful kings of England, in a way, and looking much more to the south as the primary area of diplomatic engagement. And so the settlement of the Anglo-Normans needs to be seen in that context, which is a cultural shift seen in the kings of Scots themselves. So you can absolutely see big changes because you have the replacement of an elite! But those big changes need to be seen in the context of a much broader shift that is being led by kings, rather than being led against kings, if that makes sense.

DW: Thank you very much! This week I’ve read quite a lot about this Forth divide and that I found that quite interesting.

AT: It is! It is really interesting because it’s also this idea of the symbolic power of Scotland north of the Forth. There’s this extraordinary source called On the Location of Alba which was written in the late twelfth century and talks about the symbolic division of the kingdom of the Scots into seven – and the earliest division is the area north of the Forth. So there’s the question of whether or not the south is Scottish… At this point, the monks of Melrose, an abbey in the modern Scottish borders, are still writing about themselves as though the Scots are other people. They only start seeing themselves as being part of the kingdom in the thirteenth century – Dauvit Broun has written about this.

We always like to complicate things as historians, but even talking about Scotland is a kind of later imposition on what is actually a much more complicated polity that these elites are entering. And they’re thinking ‘well, this is very different from my fief in Shropshire’… Which it is! If you were Walter FitzAlan and you were given Ayrshire you might have been like ‘my lordship in Shropshire has not really prepared me for this…’ That would be how I would certainly feel if I were him!

Stuart Pracy: I’ve been to both Scotland and Shropshire and they are very different – so I will back you up on that! It’s definitely different.

AT: And it’s different strategies of lordship. That also puts a very different spin on the idea of intermarriage. You know the imperative, the need to intermarry, because what you’re marrying into is knowledge. What does it mean to be an Anglo-Norman lord in Angus? It’s very, very different from Sussex. And the kinds of social relationships that you’re entering into… marriage is a really, really useful tool for that.

SP: Hanife, it looks like you have a question you want to ask that follows on from this.

Hanife Hursit: Yes, my question was actually in relation to intermarriage, and I’m interested in the role that women played. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find much information on it, I guess because it’s the medieval period. But my question was going to be on the importance of intermarriage in Scottish politics and the wider role that women played – and your take on that.

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and in some ways the example of Scotland only highlights some of the issues that we have looking at the twelfth century in particular. Most of the evidence from medieval Scotland in this period survives from charters. You might have been introduced to the People of Medieval Scotland database (POMS), which contains information about all the people who are mentioned in the Scottish charter corpus. And it’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women! The materials that we have to study even just aristocratic women are based on what we can garner from charters, because there’s not much in the way of a chronicle tradition in this period…

‘It’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women!’

We know that there are hugely powerful heiresses, women who exercise vast amounts of power and authority, particularly in the west, and who we know are acting as these key nodes of lordly patronage and lordly networks – but we don’t really know anything more than that. We also know that there are large numbers of intermarriages not just through the existing Gaelic-speaking aristocracy but also, for want of a better word, Anglo-Norman women who are marrying major mormaers (regional rulers). We also know a lot about women’s patronage, what they give land to. But it is very, very difficult to look at the political role of women here because there’s just not a lot of twelfth-century evidence, even though we know intermarriage is the way in which these incoming lords must have embedded themselves.

So, an example is my totes fave Eschina, lord of Mow in Roxburghshire, who sometimes calls herself Eschina of London – and she is somebody whose marriage patterns you can actually track! Eschina of Mow/London marries Walter FitzAlan, her first husband, and it’s also possible that she is related to the mother of William the Lion’s high-profile illegitimate son Robert of London. Her marriage alliances are, essentially, ways in which she starts exercising firstly, her power over southern Scotland through her marriage to Walter FitzAlan and, secondly, embeds herself in that south-easterly lordship of Roxburgh, which is the richest area of the kingdom at this time. But you have to do that work yourself… That’s the annoying thing about studying aristocratic women in Scotland – and that’s where POMS is really helpful. So you can type in Eschina’s name into POMS and immediately you get all the known information about her. She’s somebody who doesn’t appear in chronicles and we wouldn’t know anything about her were it not for charters. But it is very clear that in the second half of the twelfth century she is this key node that allows for a lot of other people to gain status through her. I’d say Matthew Hammond is probably the best person to read on women in the adoption of charters. I don’t know if that answers your question!

SP: It’s a very, very thorough answer and I think it covered everything and more, didn’t it?! Do we have another question?

Evan Shingles: My question’s on Scottish royal relationships with the kings of Man and the Isles. I wanted to know how the Scottish kings related to them in the twelfth century: was it always hostile? Was it sometimes positive?

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and the short answer is a bit of both. Incursions from the west start early in the reign of Mael Coluim IV, when he’s young and everyone hates him. There’s been a way of writing until very, very recently (possibly spurred on by devolution) that considers these incursions overwhelmingly in national terms. So anything that looked like an incursion against royal authority would be written as a ‘rebellion’, for example, you’ve got a ‘rebellion in Moray’. It’s the idea that somehow these Scottish kings have natural authority and anything that is against them is understood in the words of rebellion. The last of this tradition is probably Andrew McDonald’s Outlaws of Medieval Scotland, where you are looking at people who are “revolting” and then writing about them as though they are rebels.

And Somerled is very interesting because Alex Woolf has written a really nice piece about a text called the Song of the Death of Somerled. He has this beautiful reading where he basically rewrites the entire history of these incursions from the west in the reign of Mael Coluim and reframes them by saying these aren’t incursions, these aren’t rebellions, these aren’t attacks. This is actually a large diplomatic alliance, which has different people leading at different points and which Somerled is part of. It’s a different option that’s going on in Alba, i.e. Scotland north of the Forth, basically in direct opposition to the kingship of Mael Coluim. So when we’re looking at these relationships it’s sometimes hard to find literature that actually speaks about them in the way that they should be spoken about. Richard Oram in his Domination and Lordship book writes about the reign of Mael Coluim IV very well here, based on the work of the late Alasdair Ross. But that’s very, very recent – that’s in the last 10 years!

And so when we’re thinking about the relationships with the kings of Man and the kings of the Isles, it’s very, very important to see them as being part of a diplomatic alliance in which the authority and legitimacy of kingship is not secure. There are other options, there are other ways of thinking about Scottish kingship, particularly in that middle period of the twelfth century. You could be looking at a very, very different kind of polity which just essentially leaves southern Scotland and Northumberland to the remnants of Mael Coluim III and Margaret’s dynasty, and actually sees a much broader-based alliance between what’s now central and eastern Scotland and the west…

SP: I think that’s a really interesting idea, because your book is all about how Anglo-centric viewpoints on Scotland are problematic. But it’s interesting to see the regional historiographical issues with revolts in the area – an interesting breakdown of historiographical problems within broader historiographical trends!


See our next blog post for ‘Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland’

Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Rachel Rose Reid, Part 2

In my previous post for the Centre for Medieval Studies blog, I promised a much-needed follow-up to my interview with the storyteller Rachel Rose Reid, whose retelling of the medieval French Roman de Silence is currently touring around the country. This week, we’ll be talking about some of the more challenging questions raised by the text, and their impact on how she has interpreted the text and devised her own piece.

Rachel and ‘Silence’


Returning to your interpretation of Silence, I was struck by the way in which you begin Part 1 of the story. Why did you start your retelling of Silence by recounting your own story — that is, the story of how you came across this wonderful text?

There were a couple of reasons: firstly, Heldris (the narrator-figure in Silence) doesn’t ‘start the story with the story’ either! Instead, we have this intriguing prologue that offers an invective against avarice. While I don’t begin my retelling in quite the same way, I do think that my own introduction serves a similar purpose — that is, to involve the audience in my storytelling, and to begin ‘weaving’, together with them, the world of the story. Immersion isn’t everything: whenever I come back to moments of honesty like this one, where I tell my own story, I’m being authentically present with the audience. There’s something in that interaction which means that people follow you: they trust you, and you’re able to ‘catch’ them if you feel that they need to be brought back into the story.

… and, of course, Heldris does this throughout their own story, interacting — or at least presenting an interaction — with his own audience. There are points where he’s very direct about this: just before he reaches Silence’s birth, Heldris promises the audience (in the English translation) ‘a lively tale without any further fuss or ado’!

… and this itself raises a fascinating question: why does the story (as Heldris tells it) start so far beforehand? Heldris could easily have started the story with the birth of Silence, but chooses not to: instead, there’s a focus on this question of inheritance, which makes up a large part of the first part of Silence. On a personal level, the inheritance question — which of course ‘sets up’ the motive for Silence to present as a different gender later in the story — is something that I’m very interested in. I’m part of a collective called Three Acres and a Cow, which has really opened my eyes to the different relationships that people have had to land over the centuries; it seems that, although we’re many generations down the line from the world of Silence, there’s still very much a legacy there, and the attitudes towards land and inheritance that Silence documents are still evident in the present day. A few years ago, I visited several Cornish towns with a story about suffrage, and people told us that their own aunts had missed out on inheritances for this same reason: it had gone to particular male relatives, in this case just before changes were made to inheritance law. I’m fascinated by the cultural landscape that informs tales such as Silence, by what it would mean to hear about changes to the law such as these; and by whether Evan’s actions would have been considered provocative or commonplace.

And yet, modern academic work on Silence – with some exceptions – really hasn’t shown the same interest in the inheritance question. One particularly dry description of the opening conflict between the counts sees it as nothing more than a ‘debate over primogeniture’, and in general, it’s the questions of gender that have dominated scholarship, with Simon Gaunt noting (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Silence ‘appears to engage deliberately with problems that interest modern theorists.’

Questions surrounding gender are more ‘front-and-centre’ in Part 2 of my retelling, of course, but the two ideas about inheritance and women are of course intimately connected. I’m interested in both questions: about who would have listened to this story, and how contentious the material about land ownership would have been. It’s been really satisfying to work with medievalists, including medievalists who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Roman de Silence itself, but who work on the general period during which it was produced. Even if the insights that come out of these conversations don’t make it into my retelling every night, it’s really fun talking to academics who can help to inform my telling of the story, answering some of the more esoteric questions. One question that’s intriguing me at the moment is that of what Cornwall would have meant to the audience of Silence: would it simply have been ‘somewhere far away’, or would it have had a more concrete opening?

That’s a tricky question to answer, but there has increasingly been a tendency in research to stress the ‘connectedness’ of the medieval world, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the audience of Silence to be aware of Cornwall, at least in the context of a lot of the Arthurian material that locates Arthur in this area. The very fact that the manuscript of Silence has survived in Britain at all is testament to cross-Channel movement: it is, after all, written in a dialect of French that shows relatively little Anglo-Norman influence, with far more of a Picard ‘feel’ to it. One theory suggests that the manuscript was composed around the late 13th century as part of a marriage dowry, only reaching England as a piece of plunder late in the Hundred Years’ War.1 Histories of manuscript provenance are, in the end, personal stories — much like the stories that you bring alive in your retelling.

For me, Silence is very much a story about how humans — whether the characters in Silence, or the owners of the manuscript — try to structure the world. Each of us has ways in which we try to structure our world in order to make everything okay; in the case of the characters in Silence, it’s society that has trapped people into certain ways of being. That’s one of the reasons why I try to present Eufeme (King Evan’s Queen, who fulfills the ‘Potiphar’s wife’ trope) as a more rounded character. Heldris might try to give us some understanding of her motivations, but there’s more to be said here: Eufeme might seem to be terrible, but if you look at how she got to be where she is, the only place where she can enact real change is in the personal realm. Only Merlin sits apart from this, and his laughter — which I’ve always read as cosmic, not cruel — seems to me to be saying, ‘look at all these humans, who think they can control and set up these structures.’

Rachel with Hayley Cotterill, Senior Archivist at the University of Nottingham, in front of the manuscript of the Roman de Silence.

Working with Rachel has been an absolute privilege, and it’s been wonderful to re-acquaint myself with the Roman de Silence after a few years, particularly in the form of a retelling as lively, engaging, and powerful as hers. Rachel has transformed a story whose characters are often read as ciphers — ‘Silence’, ‘Euphemie’, ‘Eupheme’ — into an intensely human tale, while preserving its focus on questions that connect the medieval and the modern. 

For more information about Silence, see the show’s website.

Rachel has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see and 

If you’re reading this shortly after publication, and happen to live near either Amsterdam or Birmingham, Rachel will be bringing Silence to you on 3rd and 8th November respectively!

Edward Mills, PhD Student


1 More recent work on the manuscript, however, has argued for an earlier dating of the early 13th century, based on an analysis of paratextual features such as illustration. See Alison Stones, ‘Two French Manuscripts: WLC/LM/6 and WLC/LM/7’, in Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (eds.), The Wollaton Medfieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 41-56.

James Clark in Champaign, IL: A French Noblewoman Makes her Monastic Vows

In the heart of the American Mid-West, two and a half hours from Chicago, in the University twin town of Urbana-Champaign is a rare gem of a collection of medieval manuscripts.

Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL


An early translation of the Rule of St Benedict

UIUC MS 98, fo. 1r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

Among them is a French translation of the Regula Benedictiitself a relatively rare survival, particularly from such an early date (c. 1270), although vernacular versions of the rule were widely attested. The translation is also distinguished by an opening illumination (fo. 1ra) with an unusual depiction of Benedictine sisters gathered before the sainted father of the order and maker of the rule, clutching what would appear to represent their profession statements.


A nun’s vows

Pasted on to the lower margin of Chapter 58, ‘On the manner of receiving sisters’, (fo. 25r), is an original profession statement, written out in a formal textura hand on a separate slip of parchment (now trimmed). The statement is in the name of one Claudia de Brilly, who identifies herself as making her profession of vows to become a sister of the abbey of St Sulpice and St Glossinde at Metz in the presence of Abbot Benedict of the abbey of St Arnould in the same city. The family of Brilly were lords of Touffreville and Villers-Bocage.

UIUC MS 98 2
UIUC MS 98, fo. 25r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This Benedict can be identified as Benoit Juville who held the abbacy of St Arnould between 1545 and 1566, defending the ancient abbey church even as the Emperor Charles V laid siege to Metz in 1552. Abbé Benoit was forced to lead his brethren to the relative safety of the city’s Dominican convent, although the Imperial siege ultimately proved unsuccessful. The sisters of St Glossinde, however, held firm and, for all the tensions outside, young Claudia’s early years under vows were uninterrupted.


A symbol of continuity

In several different ways the manuscript represents continuities in medieval monastic history: the remarkable resilience of female observance at Metz, which began in the 7th century and persisted until August 1792; the enduring role of Metz, once the crucible of the Gorze reform, as a monastic hub; and the survival of the ceremonial of profession, and the materiality of the rule within it, even as the boundaries, indeed the polities of the old European Christendom came apart at the seams.

Prof. James G. Clark, at Champaign, IL

Skip to toolbar